Feb 8, 2013

Mathematics of Dieting

Ever since I started watching my weight, I have been reading up on diet, nutrition and all sorts of related topics. Like with other subjects, reading a lot on the web exposes you to a lot of junk and often misleading stuff, and stuff that is simply copied from elsewhere. Filtering out all the crap and digesting the 'truth' is as challenging as losing weight, if not more!

On top of that, there is genuine disagreement on practically every aspect of dieting, exercise and nutrition. Which means you will come across completely opposite arguments, for and against anything, be it squatting beyond parallel, running every other day, no-carb diet, fat free, drinking milk or eating soy food. Each one will be convincing and articulate, only until you read the other.

Thanks to the litigious societies we all live in, most people also add the standard disclaimer that they are not doctors and even if they are, you should simply not believe what they say, and 'consult your physician' before acting on any recommendation.

You can take the above paragraph as the disclaimer on my behalf as well! I am neither a doctor nor a nutrition expert. Nor have I lived 80+ years in perfect health to qualify for giving out advise on these topics from first hand experience.

But then, when has that stopped anyone from blogging what they want to say?

It is the Maths, stupid!

Often, we fail to understand the simple mathematics that is behind almost any day to day phenomenon. For instance, how many know that the odds of winning Toto are 1:8+ million?

It is not necessary to consume meat / fish to get protein, vegetable sources can provide all of it. Of course, some veg sources are not 'complete' which means we have to supplement with others, (Update: I have subsequently learnt that this is not true..one of those 'myths' that even professionals believe in) but ignoring that for a moment, it is true you don't need meat to get all the protein you need.

But then simple maths tells you, it adds a lot to your calories as veg food is typically low in protein (rice) or high in calories (peanuts).

If you are targeting 80gm of protein (should be ok for most adults), then this table shows you the vital stats

ItemGms to consumeCalories added!
Chicken Breast, no oil320275
Peanuts, raw2301300
Rice, cooked, white2,200!2,800!
Salmon, raw300425

As you can see, you simply cannot eat rice and expect 100% protein coverage unless you are eating so much that it is impractical. Of course, no one eats so much rice, they combine it with veggies etc.

But it does illustrate the fact that eating meat/fish gets you the protein 'cheap' in terms of calories. For those with sedentary lifestyles, that is important. A farmer can probably get by eating a lot of rice and very little meat, because he works his extra calories off.

The other fact is that eating peanuts (or any other nut), more than a handful can load you up with lots of protein, but even more calories. Mind you, these are for raw peanuts, and the numbers go up if you fry or roast them in oil!

And, in case you think 200 gms of peanuts is a lot, it is less than 2 cups, so it is easy to swallow that many with drinks.

Looking at the table, it is also easy to see why the reverse is also true - it is easy to overload yourself with a lot of protein, which the body has to dispose of, by destroying calcium from our bones...which is why milk drinking societies, ironically, have high levels of bone fractures and poor bone health. For example, a typical serving of a few tuna or salmon sashimi pieces, the healthiest of the lot, can easily take care of half your protein needs. Which means almost all the other meat you eat during the day simply goes 'waste' and destroys valuable calcium and overall health in the process. That is because you do get protein from other food you eat, even if the rest of the day is meat free. That is rarely the case for most folks in rich countries and rich folk in all countries.

I am not suggesting one diet or the other, particularly no fad diet, but is important to keep in mind the 'mathematics' of how calories, protein (and other nutrients) and quantity of food consumed interact and influence each other. And keep your eyes peeled for inadvertent excess consumption of any particular item.

Also, when you read sweeping statements on the web such as 'lean meat is ok' or 'you get all the protein you want eating spinach' and 'nuts are a great source of nutrients', just think about how much, how often and more importantly, how that impacts your calorie balance and whether it is practically possible to each so much or so little.

For example, milk gives you Vitamin D, yes, but to get your daily dosage, you have to drink tens of glasses while standing under the sun for a few minutes would do a better job with zero calories!